Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon
November 4, 2013
Review By Forrest Pass
It is difficult to research and write about the history of British Columbia without coming across snippets of Chinook Jargon. Within living memory, it was the lingua franca in coastal logging camps and salmon canneries, and early twentieth-century visitors described it as a quintessentially west coast curiosity. Chinook toponyms dot the landscape, and for some today the language connotes a sort of proto-multiculturalism, as illustrated by the quotation from former lieutenant-governor Iona Campagnolo that George Lang has selected as his epigraph. Many British Columbians have at least a passing acquaintance with Chinook Jargon (perhaps having bought a car at Skookum Chrysler in Gibsons, spent a night at the Tyee Village Motel in Port Alberni, or jogged along the Stanley Park seawall to Siwash Rock), and they may even know it as a hybrid trade language combining First Nations, French, and English elements. However, the dynamics of its genesis and early evolution have largely escaped the attention of historians and linguists alike.
To fill this void, Lang skilfully melds linguistic and historical analysis in a fascinating interdisciplinary study of the formation of Chinook Jargon. He traces its genealogy not to the basin of the Columbia River but, rather, to Nootka Sound and the attempts by British and Spanish explorers to communicate with their Nuu-chah-nulth trading partners. As the centre of the maritime fur trade spread southward to Forts Astoria and Vancouver, so too did “Nootka Jargon.” Lang convincingly dismisses theories of a pre-contact Chinook Jargon, instead demonstrating that the adoption of Nootka Jargon by Chinook traders and the approximation of Lower Chinook speech by Boston traders converged to create a new language suited to the needs of the fur trade. Among Lang’s intriguing revelations is the role of women and children in shaping Chinook Jargon. First Nations women, he argues, were among the first regular speakers of the trade language, and he draws an analogy between their fate as wives or mistresses of European traders and the fate of the language itself. At Fort Vancouver, the use of Chinook, almost as a mother tongue, among mixed-blood children stabilized the Jargon in its now familiar form, as did the incorporation of French vocabulary and the diminishing population of Lower Chinook speakers.
The displacement of this first generation of Jargon-speakers and their migration throughout the Pacific Northwest transformed the Jargon once again, this time into a diasporic language and, most recently, into a regional aide-mémoire, an unofficial language for Cascadians. Given this continuing evolution of the language, Lang’s rigorous study of the early history of Chinook Jargon will be a welcome read not only for linguists but also for historians of Native-newcomer contact and of the cultural peculiarities of the northern Pacific Slope.